Dedicated to the memory of Max Richards. Friend and poet mentor.
Narrator: Annie Dillard: ponderer of life, astute observer of nature. Her prose constantly calls us to position and reposition ourselves in response to her ideas and those of other quoted essayists, poets, philosophers, scientists, rabbis, anthropologists……. Statement of fact and interpretative meaning often go hand in hand. Sometimes it feels as if we, the reader, fall through her prose. Sometimes, it’s like journeying through dense bushland. Her voice is bold; she makes plain statements but seems to withdraw just as quickly, to let silence and gaps speak as eloquently as any well-formed phrase spiced with artless aside. She is a writer slippery as an eel who leads the reader down into caverns of ideas and questions: about life, suffering, God, existence. She challenges us and plays with us. But there is a tender quality to her prose, a kindness even in throes of her tearing passions, or barking at God, or sudden unexpected shift of reasoning. She always has us the reader in hand; not tightly, but as invitation, utilising her sharp wit and craft, humour to full effect. A wily weaver of phrases; her writing is soaked with humanity.
American Childhood: I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, in a house full of comedians, reading books. Possibly because Father had loaded his boat one day and gone down the Ohio River, I confused leaving with living, and vowed that when I got my freedom I would do both.
Narrator: American Childhood is Annie Dillard’s autobiography and here she consciously constructs a portrait of her early life and her growing sense of selfhood in the world. She is the eldest of three girls: Amy, second. Dillard tells us Amy ‘was a looker’ and that Annie had ‘made several attempts to snuff baby Amy in her cradle’.
American Childhood: Mother had repeatedly discovered me pouring glasses of water carefully into her face.
Narrator: But Molly, the youngest, as a baby was different.
American Childhood: I liked everything about her - the strong purity of her cheerfulness, bewilderment, outrage; her big dumb baldness, pointy fingers, little teeth, the works.
Narrator: However, it’s adolescence that tells us most about Annie Dillard’s emerging self in the world.
American Childhood: I was what they called a live wire.
Narrator: Adolescence is her first great awakening. All sorts of dynamic emotions were bubbling up inside her. Anger she describes then as feeling…..
American Childhood: ….myself coiled and longing to kill someone or bomb something big…..
Narrator: So too, aspects of life and other people became apparent.
American Childhood: ……..Sometimes in class I couldn’t stop laughing; things were too funny to be borne. It began then my surprise that no one else saw what was so funny.
Narrator: As a teenager Dillard read Rimbaud, the French symbolists, British War Poets, Lucretius, Hardy, Updike, Emerson……
American Childhood: I read with the pure exhilarating greed of sixteen, seventeen year olds; I felt I was exhuming lost continents and plundering their stores.
Narrator: She discovered passion.
American Childhood: I loved my boyfriend so tenderly, I thought I must transmogrify into vapour. It would take spectroscopic analysis to locate my molecules into thin air. No possibly way of holding him was close enough. Nothing could cure this bad case of gentleness except, perhaps, violence: maybe if he swung me by the legs and split my skull on a tree? Would that ease this insane wish to kiss too much his eyelids outer corners and his temples, as if I could love up his brain.
Narrator: During these years, her energy and her questioning broke many social boundaries: she wrote a ‘fierce’ letter to her minister and quit the church; she was suspended from school for smoking cigarettes; she played her father’s snare drum so hard ‘on a particularly piercing rock-n-roll down beat’ that she broke straight through it. Taking up an offer to join a drag race with some boys she hardly knew and in the process breaking both her knees, she was sent to juvenile court - her parents were horrified to read an account of the incident in a newspaper. But it was during this period too, Dillard came to realise that adolescence is a time when although your consciousness is being opened, other unanticipated realities hinder your spirit.
American Childhood: For as long as I could remember I had been transparent to myself, unselfconscious, learning, doing most of every day. Now I was in my own way; I myself was a dark object I could not ignore. I couldn’t remember how to forget myself….I was a boulder blocking my own path……Must I then lose the world forever that I had so loved? Was it all, the whole bright and various planet, where I had been so ardent about finding myself alive, only a passion peculiar to children, that I would outgrow even against my will?
Narrator: Well, the world that she had so loved wasn’t lost. What she illustrates for us in her subsequent literary career is that life is a series of awakenings. To be an ardent lover of life actually involves an ongoing process of questioning, wondering, suffering, knowing the suffering world. The boulder of herself that blocked her own path actually became the very place for her own passionate consciousness to discover new paths. ‘We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught, to wake up’ she says in Total Eclipse. And as her own adolescent consciousness awoke, she began that lifelong recognition that we are all forever bonded to this particular present moment; to our present circumstances.
American Childhood: I am or seem to be on a road walking.
Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos: Being here is being here on the rocks.
Holy the Firm: I seem to be on a road, standing still.
Narrator: It’s from trust in this place where she ‘seems to be’ that she ‘seems’ to sense the vibrations below the surface of the planet; vibrations which are in touch with what she calls in Holy the Firm, the Absolute at base. God.
A familiar phrase in mystical writings (which here is the context I am most interested in concerning the writings of Annie Dillard) is that if God were to be symbolised as a circle, t